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Nairobi's Giraffic Park

Family and close friends aside, there is no individual with whom I'd rather spend time than a giraffe. Better yet, a whole herd of giraffes, with their sumptuous coats, their velvety mouths, their regal bearing. I am, it is fair to say, smitten, a condition brought on by my first trip to Africa nearly 25 years ago.

To be honest, everything about Africa was a revelation: elephants, lions, rhino, even sturdy little warthogs, made my jaw drop and my heart race. But the superstars of the savanna were unquestionably the giraffes. They were golden and gorgeous and graceful. They had the softest eyes and the longest lashes I had ever seen. And when they ran, they seemed to float. I was mesmerized.

When I got home, I stoked my new passion with frequent trips to the zoo. I read the few giraffe books available and started to amass a collection of giraffe likenesses in wood, clay, glass, and gold. I reported my discovery to friends, including a wise one who nodded, looked at me, and explained, "Of course. Tall blondes."

Of course, she was also describing me. But it's not just about physical resemblance. It's a special understanding, a shared secret, a—literally—heightened awareness. I, who sprouted to my current five feet eight inches at age 13, fully appreciate the mixed blessing of being taller than most of the crowd. And I, who can't get out of a taxicab in high heels without feeling as if I'm wearing stilts on ice, recognize the gawky vulnerability of a 17-foot-tall creature that has to splay its legs to reach down for a drink of water. As for their gracefulness—the aloof, elegant posture which gives them such a dreamy air—well, that particular gift remains my fantasy.

Luckily, I have found the perfect place to indulge my obsession. It is called Giraffe Manor, and it occupies 140 acres of the Kenyan highlands about 20 minutes outside Nairobi. For humans, as many as 10 of them, it is a luxurious hotel, with three meals a day and superb service. For seven beautiful beasts, it is home—a place to live, a nonstop dining room, a stage on which to be admired. It is the only place I know where you can feed and pet an uncaged giraffe. And receive a delicate kiss in return.

Giraffe Manor began as a colonialist dream, a replica of a Scottish mansion built to suit the British coffee mogul who settled there in the 1930's. Four decades later, it became the home of an American writer and her Kenyan husband. Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville ran photography safaris and preached conservation. In 1974 they learned that Kenya's last herd of Rothschild giraffes (one of the country's three subspecies) faced extinction, their grazing grounds in western Kenya about to be displaced by farmland. The Leslie-Melvilles decided to capture one of the 130 fugitives and try to raise it at home. Never mind that no one had ever heard of hand-rearing a wild giraffe. After obtaining government permission, they snagged a one-year-old calf, which they named Daisy. Daisy adapted so well she became the subject of a book (Raising Daisy Rothschild) and a TV movie. Eventually, the Leslie-Melvilles added another giraffe to their front lawn, then another, and another. Never intending to make them pets, they freed their adopted brood and rejoiced when all returned, at least part-time.

I first stayed at Giraffe Manor by happy accident in 1985, when I returned to Africa on assignment for ABC News in Nairobi. I phoned ahead to find out whether I could drop by to meet Daisy. "Drop by?You can stay here," they told me. "Stay there?With the giraffes?" I was incredulous. "Sure thing," came the response. "We're open to the public now."

And so I found my favorite place—a stone villa with a vast manicured lawn populated by a herd of spotted giants. Each morning I watched them stroll across the yard; at breakfast I could barely gulp down my coffee before a huge head drifted through the window for a handout. And when I left for work I found a gang of giraffes waiting to play. Perhaps you like to roughhouse with your spaniel before heading to the office; maybe you set out a saucer of milk for the cat. I found myself offering carrots to a two-story-high survivor of prehistoric times with a sinuous, liver-colored tongue that extended the length of my forearm. Daisy and her kinfolk let me scratch the hairy "horns" atop their heads and stroke the soft fur of their lithe necks. I marveled at the sweet breath and gentle nature of a creature that can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds and kill a lion with a kick.

Clearly some of the credit for the giraffes' amiable demeanor goes to their human protectors. When Jock Leslie-Melville died in 1984, Betty left control of the manor to her son, Rick Anderson, and his British-born wife, Bryony. The couple have been my friends and hosts ever since, running both the herd and the hotel with a perfect mixture of British reserve, Kenyan spirit, and American informality. The house itself, with its dark wood paneling, overstuffed chairs, and roaring fireplaces, recalls the rich heritages of both European settlers and native tribes. An accomplished staff provides splendid meals and expertise on wildlife. This is a dwelling designed for curling up and reading, for good conversation, or for just staring at the spectacular figures in the yard.

Indoors, I gravitate toward the sunroom—an airy corner where breakfast and lunch are served. One set of windows faces the front lawn, beyond which lies the bush and then Nairobi in the distance. The west windows reveal a brilliant sunset view and the four peaks of the Ngong Hills, site of the coffee plantation once run by Baroness Karen Blixen, whose memoir Out of Africa (written under her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen) put Kenya on the map for a generation of readers and moviegoers. Blixen's presence is palpable. Thanks to her friendship with Jock's mother, Giraffe Manor is graced with a collection of furniture from Blixen's house, now a museum.

Some years ago the family set up the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) to administer the estate, run the nearby Education Centre, and encourage conservation. Kenya's Rothschild population has stabilized at about 500, largely because of AFEW's success at relocating individuals to unoccupied parks.

Unfortunately, Daisy was relocated to giraffe heaven in 1989, but several of her descendants and cousins flourish at this sanctuary, robust guardians of a gene pool with the power to stir our souls.

To book a room ($490 double, with meals) at Giraffe Manor, call its U. S. office at 410/581-8116.

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